I woke up Saturday morning thinking about the hymn “America the Beautiful.” It was part of my sermon preparation, on the theme of gratitude—last Sunday, gratitude for our native land, our home country. Before very long, I was thinking, “This hymn needs some new verses.”

The author of the hymn, Katherine Bates, also thought it needed adjustment, because the wording of the four verses as we sing them now vary significantly from the text as it was first published in 1895. She herself revised it for a 1904 publication, then again in 1910 with the text as we sing it today.

But here is what I sensed as a read and reread the lyrics: this hymn celebrates pilgrims (verse two) and soldiers (verse three), and together those two demographics constitute only a small part of the human mosaic we call the United States of America. Lots of people are left out, including many of us without Pilgrim pedigrees.

I began writing, thinking I could improve this hymn.

I did this once before, when I wanted to transform the old gospel song “Shall We Gather at the River” from its message about crossing the river that separates life from death into an invitation to the waters of baptism. I wrote three verses; we sang it in our little Baptist church in North Carolina; and I know of two United Methodist congregations in Virginia who sang it also, because their pastor is my good friend (and a Baptist).

That experience gave me confidence (misplaced though it might be) to start writing again last Saturday.

First, I wanted to update the language, to strip from the hymn all the Elizabethan language. We remember some lines from that hymn, like “God shed his grace on thee.” Who even says that anymore? Americans didn’t even use that kind of language when the hymn was written in 1893. I changed it to “God’s grace for you and me.” That also avoids the masculine pronoun for God.

The same issues surface in the last line of verses one and four: “And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” Finding the right replacement language for this took the most time, plus a conversation with my wife and a text thread with my friend. He suggested “humanhood” instead of “brotherhood,” but she suggested “neighborhood,” which he then affirmed, writing “neighborhood is what we need right now!!”

I then turned my attention to three demographic groups that need inclusion in our vision of a beautiful America:  native Americans, African Americans, and refugees of all kinds. The first I termed “native tribes;” the second I referenced as “black and brown;” and the third, simply, as “refugees.” I decided to put references to these groups in the first-person plural—we—as if they were singing with us and we with them, like this:

“O beautiful for native tribes! We first this land did roam….”
“O beautiful for black and brown, for we who suffered long….”
“O beautiful for refugees! We come in search of peace….”


I sent the lyrics to a dozen people seeking advice and suggestions. Only two responded, plus one who wrote, “I never received it.” Maybe others also didn’t receive it, but it was too late to wait. Sunday was coming, and I was ready to preach.


The lyrics appeared in our worship bulletin, seven verses. I invited the congregation—all 23 of us in the sanctuary—to sing each one, on cue, preceded by a brief, sermonic commentary. I had never done this and am still unsure whether it was a good idea (even after watching the video recording).


For your edification, or merely for your information, I print here the text of my version of the great hymn, “America the Beautiful” and link here to the text of the sermon and the recording of the service. Let me know what you think!


O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,

For purple mountains majesties above the fruited plain!

America! America! God’s grace for you and me.

Secure this good with neighborhood from sea to shining sea.


O beautiful for native tribes! We first this land did roam.

With strong resolve and courage clear, we made of it our home.

America! America! God’s grace for you and me.

We stand to say, we kneel to pray, we sing in harmony.


O beautiful, for pilgrim feet! Our stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.

America! America, God mend our every flaw.

Confirm our soul in self-control, our liberty in law.


O beautiful for black and brown, for we who suffered long.

Our pain endured, our hope secured, with joy we now belong.

America, America, God’s grace for you and me.

Free everyone to sing this song, of faith and liberty.   


 O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,

We more than self our country loved and mercy more than life!

America! America! May God our gold refine,

‘til all success be nobleness and every gain divine.


O beautiful for refugees! We come in search of peace.

From danger, death, and hopelessness, we seek a sweet release.

America! America! God, open wide the gate!

With grateful hearts we play our parts throughout this grand estate.


O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years.

These alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears!

America! America! God’s grace for you and me.

Secure this good with neighborhood from sea to shining sea. 

Published On: November 20th, 2023 / Categories: Commentary /

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